Sunday, January 24, 2010

What's The Big Deal With Teacher Leadership?

I was sitting in a meeting recently about the new evaluation standards for teachers and the question was asked to the group about how they are leaders in the classroom. Keep in mind there are some awesome teachers in this group that do amazing things with kids and in the school. If anyone observed them would say they were models of teacher leadership. When asked how they modeled leadership in their classroom and/or school no one responded. Why? No one spoke up about themselves. There were plenty of examples given of other teachers in the building that exemplified leadership qualities but no one, not a soul, said anything about themselves.

So I ask? What is the big deal with being a teacher-leader? Meaning, why, when asked, are teachers so afraid to say how awesome they really are. And to go further, why, do most refuse to talk about the awesome things they are doing with kids?

We all know in our buildings and districts those amazing teachers. Those teachers that truly believe it is not about them, that it is about the kids. We identify them as teacher leaders but most would refuse the title. They believe they are doing what is best and they do it every day. My issue is why not, humbly at least, admit they are leaders. What is the problem with that?

The problem is the group I call "The Others." They are the ones in the building who see their classroom as a means of survival. It is what pays the bills and keeps them feed. They are the ones who honestly could care less about what happens to their students. We know who they are and we have to admit they exist. "The Others," unfortunately are often times the one with some power and clout in the building. They have this belief that their opinion matters and if you fall outside of what they consider acceptable, well, your time in the building may be miserable. "The Others" are often backed up by an unknown administration or an administration unwilling to see there is a problem with the culture in the school.

So because teacher leaders want to to be seen as going against "The Others" they stay silent. Yes their kids are amazing, and there are still amazing things happening in those classrooms, it rarely makes it out into the mainstream culture of the building.

Look, there is nothing wrong with awesome educating. In fact we need more teachers to stand up and talk about what they are doing. You are tooting your own horn, you are simply saying, that what you are doing is working and it might work for someone else.

No one wants to listen to someone with a huge ego. So you can't go around saying how wonderful you are and how great you are. And that isn't a leader anyway. A leader is one who inspires others. One who has vision and helps the other members of the organization reach that vision. A leader is one who listens to others and the needs of the organization and isn't afraid to make a change when things are not on the right path. Leaders are reflective.

We need to encourage those around us who are these teacher-leaders to stand up and not be silent when asked how they are leaders. Of course we want them to point to others, but lets get them to start pointing at themselves. It's not about ego, it's about kids. And kids deserve the best teacher leaders in their classrooms.


  1. You hit some good points - yes, I've seen "the others", too, you described it well. Teachers as Leaders was a recent book by ASCD.

  2. Good thoughts here. I think one of the reasons these teachers are quiet is because a big part of being an effective leader in education is being able to shine the spotlight on others.

    I also think it is part of the nature of being a great teacher to inherently be humble. If, every day, as a teacher you are busy cultivating the best out of students and shining the spotlight on them, it is only natural to do this when amongst colleagues. Thinking about some of the awesome teachers I've worked with, this always seems to be the case. I'm not sure it's something I would change in them- I admire it.

    Maybe the push should be on the admin to effectively shine the light on these teachers and bring them out as examples for the "others"!

  3. I'm not convinced that excellent classroom teachers are teacher-leaders by default.

    A teacher-leader doesn't wait to be asked about great strategies. A teacher-leader publishes a monthly blog/newsletter highlighting the excellent work of other teachers. A teacher-leader uses lunch time in the lounge to ask other teachers why they do the great things they do in their classrooms, within earshot of "The Others."

    Teachers-leaders speak and act with purpose and vision, and highlight the resonating actions and words of other teachers.

  4. Steven. You have touched on a subject near and dear to my heart, I've written about it myself. This group of 'others' is a pervasive and powerful problem in any school I have ever worked in or heard about. I know that this element exists in other occupations, but I feel like it is uniquely toxic in education. Because of the 'unionized' element of the occupation, an all-for-one mentality develops. The 'others' believe that if one teacher works harder than they do that it reflects poorly upon them. Furthermore, anyone who talks about these things is also seen as a braggart and self-promoter. The difference between the 'others' in other jobs and in teaching is that so many young people get the shaft.

  5. My former colleague at U. Minnesota, Dr. Jen York-Barr, used to talk about the 'crab bucket culture' that exists in many schools. Whenever a crab tries to climb out of the bucket, the rest pull it back down...

  6. You certainly make an argument with a reason to do away or alter Tenure. Tenure is what is keeping those "Others" in the classroom. I completely see so much of what you are talking about. "The Others" are one of my reasons for agreeing with the idea of Merit Based pay, because generally their students won't get the job done because they don't.

    Very thought provoking and very true...and at the same time, very sad that these types of teachers exist. They take the easy road....

  7. This is just a great post. This is how I feel at times. I've been in my building for 7 years now and I finally feel like it's my time to step up and start being apart of some of the decision making regarding curriculum. It's been an uphill battle as a I fight against teachers that do not feel the need to implement tech. I was successful in placing a requirement in the English Curriculum for Grades 9 and 10 that requires an online component to the second semester. It's teacher choice, but it's got to be there.

    Thanks for saying what many of use were thinking. Teacher Leaders need to stand up now to make the changes the STUDENTS need.

  8. Zimmer-

    Re: Merit-based pay, I'd say in my experience it is often, sadly, these "Others" that consistently turn out the best test scores. Why? Because they are really really good at prepping their students to pass tests (instead of, say, learn).

    I believe that until this environment of standardized testing transforms into something product-based and authentic, no systemic change can possibly occur.

  9. Leadership can take care of that, rewarding change, confronting stagnation and letting those responsible for the negative culture you're going to hold them accountable.

    With that said I can say I have some of those issues, but the small faculty is an advantage for me as the "Others" are few and have little to no power.

  10. When teachers decide that they are responsible for the learning of students throughout the school, they will feel more compelled to share their expertise for "students' sake."

    Don't the "others" sound like bullies. Their behavior must become socially unacceptable in a school. Thats a culture that administration and teacher leaders need to work at..

  11. I've written about similar things in the past - I think it all comes down to the fact, as you point out, that there are many in our profession who are not professional. While teacher leaders need to be cultivated and encouraged, it really is up to the administration to creat the culture that shuts down "the Others." We have made a conscious decision in many schools that I work in to not worry about the Other (we call them "the 10 percent") and instead to focus on what we know is best for our students. So far - that approach has made huge leaps forward!

  12. Thanks for a great post. The pressure to be silent is stifling at times, though I know I must "lead by example" with my peers. I don't toot my own horn but I do share my lesson ideas and do more than my share of work for my team. It is about and for the kids and I always think of the Marianne williamson quote used in a Nelson Mandela speech:
    The point is: shrinking and hiding does nothing for kids. We must lead by example for our kids' sake.
    Thanks for the great discussion.

  13. Thanks for the post. I agree, every school has those 'others' whose negativity can be powerful. Fortunately in our school there are quite a few 'teacher leaders' who have managed to overcome this with their passion and energy. Even though they don't 'blow their own horns', they happily blow each others! Because we are the majority now, we have created a positive culture of learning together. Those who don't fit in with that culture are on the outside. I know I am very lucky!

  14. This is such an important issue at all levels of education. Whether you want to call 'awesome teachers' leaders or just exemplary or inspired teachers, is not so important but talking about it is.

    It is rather sad, isn't it, that those who don't care, lay down the rules of the game and those who do care and go the extra mile are the ones who are viewed with suspicion, thought to be rocking the boat of safe and comfortable inactivity. And they fo need to understand that they are not the ones at fault. They are not the ones who have to lie low or keep a low profile.

    Reading the comments of other contributors too was interesting - almost laying down the attributes of great teachers.

    I know it is quite difficult for many teachers to find the right balance between 'tooting their own horn' and remaining silent, but posts like this may get them to think how this silence is after all, not in any student's interest.

    No 'omerta' ever helped those who did the right thing, did it.

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  16. Steven,

    Thanks for the post and reflection.
    I agree with you: in every institution there are those people who are always negative or even diminish the work of awesome teachers

  17. I guess I've just been incredibly fortunate: in 11 years of teaching high school English I've never had colleagues that fit the "others" description here. (Perhaps there were some in other departments, but the colleagues I lived with were not). And now, at the Open High School of Utah, I'm surrounded by a small but stellar staff of people who completely grasp the concept of being leaders in education. Guess we have to be that way when we're involved in something so cutting edge.